HC Deb 03 May 1991 vol 190 cc600-6

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—/Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

2.32 pm
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I am pleased to be able to raise today the important matter of the future of the London City Ballet. Although I appreciate the fact that the Minister for the Arts will respond, I recognise that I am effectively speaking through him to the Arts Council, which is responsible for the distribution and monitoring of grant received from the Government and taxpayers to individual arts organisations.

It would be wrong for the Government to intervene directly in this or any other application for grant, for three reasons. First, although the Government set out the objectives of arts policy of high standards, innovation and access to all races and income groups, it would be constitutionally wrong and impracticable for them to try to second-guess the Arts Council on the distribution of no less than £162 million-worth of grant in 1991–92, increasing to £201 million in 1992–93, £18 million of which is allocated to dance. The Government's responsibility is to ensure that the Arts Council acts effectively in allocating its grant, to provide the Arts Council with the foundations on which to allocate funds on a long-term basis—that has been achieved recently by the introduction of the three-year settlement—and to ensure that adequate levels of funding are available to it.

Funding from the Government to the Arts Council has risen threefold in real terms since the 1960s. The central Government grant to the arts in 1991–92 is £561 million, which is a 55 per cent. real-terms increase on 1979–80 and a 5 per cent. increase on last year. That the Government are generously fulfilling their responsibilities is shown by the fact that audiences for Arts Council-sponsored productions have risen from 7 million to 10 million in the past five years. In addition, the Government have set a tax regime, especially in the past five years, that encourages giving to charitable causes, including the arts. Gift aid in 1990 was an example, and the business sponsorship incentive scheme of three or four years ago led to a substantial increase in private giving and sponsorship.

Secondly, I do not believe that the Government should involve themselves directly in the needs of London City Ballet because it meets the criteria for funding laid down by the Arts Council. It is an example, par excellence, of the sort of company that ought to get Arts Council funding under its existing criteria. Moreover, London City Ballet is seeking not unconditional funding, but funding conditional on additional funds being available for the next year, and assurances to that effect.

There is no doubt about the quality of London City Ballet. It was founded in 1978, and now has 32 dancers and 19 musicians. It specialises in bringing middle-scale classical ballets—although its repertoire is wider than that—to income groups that may not previously have been able to afford to watch them, on a touring basis. Testimony to its quality has come from the chairman of the Arts Council's dance panel, Mr. Ward Jackson, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) who said today that the company was an outstanding ambassador of excellence. Dame Ninette de Valois, no less, has also spoken of the excellence of its performances.

London City Ballet has 11 per cent. of the national ballet audience, and up to 23 per cent.—nearly a quarter—of regional ballet audiences. That has been reflected at the box office. Over the past four years, the number of people watching London City Ballet has risen from 78,000 to 153,000. I doubt whether that record could be bettered elsewhere. Its average audience has been 85 per cent. of capacity. Last Christmas, its performance of Cinderella at Sadler's Wells achieved average capacities of no less than 93 per cent. Its valuable work was recognised in 1983 when it received the patronage of the Princess of Wales.

All that has been achieved without any basic funding from the Arts Council, beyond a small touring grant to subsidise venues that would otherwise not be viable. Neither has the company gone into financial deficit, on either an annual or a cumulative basis. It has had tremendous support from the business sector. It would be remiss of me if I did not pay a warm tribute to John Hughes, the chairman of London City Ballet, who has been the driving force behind the company for the past 10 years. He has supported it, often at great personal expense in energy, time and financially.

As I said, the Arts Council should support the London City Ballet because it exactly meets the criteria which the Arts Council lays down for funding. The council, according to a letter that it sent me recently, divides its funding into three categories. The first is artistic performance and a commitment to new work.

I have spoken of the standards of excellence for which the LCB has become renowned. It has performed all the major ballets—in the last year, Swan Lake and Giselle—and has extended its repertoire to a number of one-act more modern ballets. For example, Counter Balance was choreographed by Vincent Redmon specifically for the company. Graduation Ball and Three Dances to Japanese Music are further examples.

This year, the company already has sponsorship for a one-act ballet entitled Witchboy by Jack Carter and sponsorship for Les Patineurs by Frederick Ashton. As a result of that innovative activity, a number of well-known and up and coming British choreographers such as Christopher Bruce, Glen Tetley and Hans von Manen, have expressed a desire to work with the company.

The Arts Council looks, secondly, at a company's strategic role and in particular at the effectiveness of its educational work and ability to attract and broaden audiences. The LCB started its educational programme in 1983. It is fully sponsored by British Petroleum. It goes into primary and secondary schools in the areas where it is touring and it even holds workshops at a London school for physically handicapped children. In total 2,000 children throughout the country will benefit this year in educational terms from the LCB, and 10,000 have benefited since 1985.

As for attracting and broadening audiences, I have spoken of the large increase in audiences to whom the company has played. Barclays Bank wrote to the chairman of the Arts Council on 22 March this year saying: Our association with this company is being productive and beneficial. Our objective in sponsoring them is to reach, through them, the large non-metropolitan high street audience that is the heartland of our UK customer base. No other company offers such a concentrated reach and appeal, and classical dance has always shown up in our research to be the most widely accessible of the performing arts. On the basis of that, from the point of view of attracting and broadening audiences, the London City Ballet can rest its case.

The third category at which the Arts Council looks is organisational effectiveness and value for money. That is the area where the LCB has its strongest case, even though it is strong in the other areas. It employs only 78 people, yet it tours to 26 different venues every year. In 1990–91, those venues stretched from Guildford and Cheltenham in the south to Hereford, Nottingham and Wolverhampton in the midlands and from Billingham in the north-east to Inverness, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland. That demonstrates the broad appeal of the company to regional and international audiences.

That has been achieved with an average ticket price—I am not sure of the average ticket prices on tour of the other six major national ballets—of £8.90 per seat, which most people will agree is extremely good value for money for classical ballet.

When the Arts Council considers organisational effectiveness, it looks at a company's ability to earn its own income. London City Ballet has a strong advantage in absolute terms and compared to other classical dance companies. The strongest point that it can make is that, if the Arts Council invests in it on a seed corn basis, it will retain sponsorship in the arts which may otherwise be lost to the arts. One has only to compare its sponsorship position with that of other companies, to see what I mean. This year, the company has a sponsorship of £583,000 of a total £1.7 million budget. That includes sponsorship from Barclays Bank, Texaco, BP, Nestle and the Bankers Trust. It receives no less than 32 per cent. of its income through sponsorship. That is more than the sponsorship income of the Northern Ballet Company and the English National Ballet combined, which, together, receive some £3.5 million in public fundings a year. Of the six major ballet companies, the company that comes next in the table of those who receive the most sponsorship receives only 14 per cent. Therefore, I should have thought that, when London City Ballet is compared to other companies that receive public subsidy—that is meant to be a criterion for public funding from the Arts Council—its case is well and truly made.

It is small wonder that, in 1987, London City Ballet received the Association of British Sponsorship of the Arts award. Since that time, its business sponsorship has risen threefold, which is an unparalleled record of attracting income from outside. Nevertheless, although it has increased dramatically its sponsorship income and its box office income through larger audiences—as much as can be expected through rising seat prices—and those increases represent 76 per cent. of its budget, there remains a gap of some £500,000 to £600,000 a year that must be met through fund raising or donations. Such problems are not peculiar to London City Ballet, which is asking for help from the Arts Council to meet that sum.

London City Ballet is a high-quality company, which has grown rapidly and gives access to regional audiences and middle and lower income groups. It has an excellent education programme, is extremely well managed and has an unequalled record on fund raising. Although the Arts Council may be unable to give absolute assurances about its funding for 1992–93, it should at least be able to say whether, if additional funding is available to it—as I anticipate from the long-range figures that I have been given—companies such as London City Ballet will be given priority consideration when allocations are considered. Otherwise, it is a sad fact that, on 17 May, notice will be given to existing staff and, on 30 June, the company may have to close down. We are still some way from that, but action taken by the Arts Council with the possible encouragement of the Minister for the Arts, within his existing budget, can save that company and the valuable work that it does for classical ballet.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) to speak?

Hon. Members


2.49 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Tim Renton)

I regret that time is pressing and as I have some serious comments for my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) about the future of the London City Ballet, in those circumstances I have to come to the Dispatch Box now.

I listened with close attention to what my hon. Friend said. I acknowledge his keen interest in the London City Ballet and his close association with it. I am well aware of the work of the London City Ballet. I attended the performance of Cinderella at Sadler's Wells to which he referred. It was highly enjoyable. Would that I were a fairy godmother so that, with a wave of my magic wand, I could dispel the financial problems that my hon. Fried has outlined so concisely. But, alas, life is not so easy, particularly with the problems and many demands on arts funding.

My job, as my hon. Friend recognises, is to try to secure an adequate increase in Government provision to the arts, as my predecessors the right hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury were notably successful in doing in recent years. However, it is not my job to decide precisely how that provision should be allocated. Those detailed decisions have to be taken by the Arts Council with the benefit of its expert art form panels which are best placed to make those decisions, but they always involve hard choices.

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that the London City Ballet is an arts company which has given a great deal of pleasure. It is a middle-scale touring company. That means that it performs in theatres with between 300 and 1,200 seats and brings classical ballet to a varied audience, not just in London but in 24 regional theatres, 15 of which are not visited by other middle-scale ballet companies. However, I am assured that the Arts Council would want to consider what touring ballet provision could be made for those theatres if the London City Ballet were no longer able to perform there.

The ballet's audience includes a good proportion of school children and it is clearly a popular company. I have received representations from many people, including Dame Beryl Grey, the prima ballerina whom I have seen dancing so often in the past and who is a trustee of the London City Ballet.

It is also special because, as my hon. Friend said, it has grown and prospered without sustained public funding. It gets a high percentage of its income from box office. The rest has come from generous private donations and from enthusiastic business sponsorship. Its development so far is a great tribute to what determined private sector support can bring to the arts. Responsible business management also means that it is free of debt. Yet my hon. Friend has brought the matter to the House because its existence is now under threat. No one wants to see LCB close, least of all me. So why is there a problem?

Let me spend a few moments on the relationship between the LCB and the Arts Council. The Arts Council has already provided some help to LCB: a modest amount from its small project grants up to 1987–88 and more substantial support from its touring budget for performances in particular venues. London City Ballet received £100,000 in 1989–90 and 1990–91 for visits to five theatres and £89,000 in 1991–92 for visits to four.

However, LCB is not a revenue client of the Arts Council. That is at the heart of the problem to which my hon. Friend drew attention. It does not get assured annual support for the full range of its activities. LCB feels that the time has come for a firm commitment by the Arts Council to change its status into one of revenue support. The Arts Council does not at present feel that it can give that firm commitment. Without it, LCB does not believe that it can continue. Let me try to explain on the Arts Council's behalf the difficult situation it is in.

The first reason is certainly the huge growth in dance. Dance activity in Britain is now more buoyant than ever before. It is also increasingly diverse. Audiences are now offered and welcome a wide choice of dance forms—classical ballet, new and contemporary dance, ethnic dance, jazz and so on. There is great innovation and much exciting work is being developed on education and outreach, often involving children, and that means taking dance and ballet into schools and other places of education.

The increasingly diverse provision of and interest in dance and the great interest in classical ballet have meant much more demand on the Arts Council's budget for dance which, as my hon. Friend reminded us, is just over £18 million a year. Of that, almost 90 per cent. is already allocated in revenue funding to six main companies: the Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre, the Rambert dance company and the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. And 79 per cent. of the total goes on classical ballet, including revenue support for two middle-scale ballet companies—Northern Ballet Theatre, which is now successfully establishing itself in Halifax and English National Ballet's smaller company, which will benefit from the enhancement funding that my predecessor, the present Chief Secretary, set up during his short but successful reign as Minister for the Arts. Birmingham Royal Ballet also wants to develop middle-scale theatre work, and in Scotland, Scottish Ballet offers middle-scale touring and is supported by the Scottish Arts Council.

I have given a quick impression of the variety of dance and the demand for funding for dance and ballet and of how much of the Arts Council's budget for them is regularly and firmly committed. The council therefore has a difficult choice to make within that budget. That applies not only to the dance council, but to the balance that the Arts Council should commit in support between different art forms.

As my hon. Friend can well imagine, the 1991–92 budget, decided in 1990, is already wholly committed. The main outline allocations for 1992–93 are also made under three-year funding arrangements which are designed to introduce greater stability to arts funding and the principle of which was negotiated with the Treasury by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham. Decisions by other funding bodies, such as some of the London boroughs, to withdraw support—I very much regret that—are bound to increase pressure to stretch the council's resources further.

LCB is seeking a commitment to revenue funding from 1992–93 onwards of £500,000. The Arts Council believes that it cannot honestly make that commitment ahead of the autumn negotiations with the Treasury to determine the final 1992–93 provision for the arts. My hon. Friend will agree that those negotiations are not likely to be easy. I am conscious that he is parliamentary private secretary to the Chief Secretary; it is not clear whether any increase on the provision announced for 1992–93 will be possible.

My hon. Friend said that LCB was not seeking an absolute assurance from the Arts Council. When I discussed this matter again with its chairman, Lord Palumbo, early this morning, he told me that he felt strongly that it would be irresponsible of the Arts Council to make a commitment to LCB that it cannot be sure of honouring.

The needs of LCB must be weighed against those of other clients, not only in ballet and dance, but in other art forms. I explained as much when I met the chairman of LCB, Mr. John Hughes, on 11 April. I take this opportunity of joining in the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to Mr. Hughes' dedication and commitment to LCB.

The Government wholeheartedly support and respect the work of this company for the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined, but we must make it clear that it has, from the beginning, been a private, independent company, set up by a group of committed people who wanted to run a dance company. It is a free-standing company such as the Government support. It is riot a state-inspired company, but very much in the best traditions of entrepreneurship. I respect that wholeheartedly.

If a company is set up privately, the Government can help only to a limited extent and not always financially. It must be for the management of the company to decide how to deal with their changing financial position. If they decide, for what may be to them perfectly valid and understandable reasons, not to continue their support, which they have so kindly put into the company over past years, it cannot necessarily or automatically be right for the Government or for the Arts Council, acting on behalf of the Government, to step into the financial breach and pick up the obligations from which others are withdrawing.

I assure my hon. Friend that I share his concern about the London City Ballet. Like him, I much admire its achievements and the strength of sponsorship and of private sector support and commitment which underlies it. I very much hope that a solution can yet be found which will avert the risk of an early closure because I share with my hon. Friend the thought that we would all greatly regret such a closure.

3 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Minister will be aware of the widespread support for the London City Ballet, not only politically across the Floor of the House, but around the country and outside the capital. I heard what the Minister said and I understand, as does the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), the mechanism for funding. Those who support London City Ballet say that there must be a way, in view of the Government's having supported the principle of the continuation of London City Ballet and having said how much they support its work, in which the Arts Council, which wants the company to continue, and the business sponsors can work out a formula to establish the principle that funding will be assured.

I understand that there cannot be a cast-iron commitment now. However, a declaration of support from the Government is required which would allow those responsible to be able to continue until the autumn statement this year. I hope that, given the company's enormous reputation, great success and enormous popularity, that will be possible. I hope that the Minister, the chairman of the Arts Council and the company will be able to meet in the next few weeks before notices are served so that some way forward can be found.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Three O'clock.